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News Brief: Court Vacancy, COVID-19 Vaccine Ethics, U.N. General Assembly


President Trump says he'll announce his pick to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by this weekend.


The first question, of course, is who he will choose; the next is whether Republicans in the Senate have the time and the power to confirm the nomination. On timing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says a vote will come this year.


MITCH MCCONNELL: The Senate has more than sufficient time to process a nomination. History and precedent make that perfectly clear.

INSKEEP: McConnell needs 50 votes, plus Vice President Pence, to drive home that nomination, and senators are beginning to make their views clear.

KING: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has been following this one. Good morning, Kelsey.


KING: Does Mitch McConnell have the 50 votes he needs to make this thing happen?

SNELL: You know, it's not clear yet, but the pieces do seem to be falling into place. So far, we know that Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska appear to be noes on this, but that's at least on the process. We don't know if they will be a no on an eventual nominee because there isn't a nominee. There's a big question still about Mitt Romney of Utah who hasn't weighed in yet. He told reporters that he needs to keep talking to his colleagues before he makes an announcement. Now, Republicans can afford to lose some people because Mike Pence, the vice president, can break a tie. But if Republicans lose Romney and another Republican, they would be in trouble. You know, McConnell has been careful not to say exactly when the vote will happen beyond that it will happen this year, in part because it would be a near record-breaking feat to get a nomination processed and approved between now and Election Day. That's just 42 days away. Republican senators reminded reporters repeatedly yesterday that it took exactly that many days, 42, for the Senate to approve Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And there isn't a nominee yet.

KING: Right. OK. We won't know until the president says this weekend. So 42 minus - what? - four or five. We heard some names yesterday in terms of who the front-runner for the nomination might be, but this is a moving. Story whose names are we hearing now? And is the president playing to the Senate with his choice?

SNELL: We still don't know exactly if he is playing to this end. The question will be will it be somebody like Amy Coney Barrett, who has already been voted for by many of these senators. Key senators like Collins and Murkowski already voted for others. And, you know, there are dynamics like with candidate Barbara Lagoa of Florida who was confirmed by a large bipartisan majority to her circuit court post, and this is how President Trump described it.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Most of them are young, and they've gone through the process very recently.

SNELL: So why is that important? It's because it's easier to move somebody through a very lengthy process if they've already been vetted because, typically, even lower court process has behind-the-scenes background checks and meetings and then there are the hearings to come. So that that could smooth the process.

KING: Do Democrats have any options for slowing this down?

SNELL: Democrats don't have a lot of options. They can't block a vote if Senator McConnell has them, but they're trying to mount a massive pressure campaign and make this about more than just the nominee, make it about the bigger, broader politics. And, you know, they are stressing that they have other options out there, and they just haven't told us what they are yet.

KING: OK. NPR's Kelsey. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you.


KING: All right. When a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, who should get it first?

INSKEEP: Not a minor question. Think of millions of people who want to return to their offices but are not considered essential workers. Think of older people who are considered more vulnerable than others. Today, a CDC advisory committee considers what to recommend.

KING: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is with us now. Hey, Selena.


KING: Who is on this CDC committee?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So this is the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP. It has 14 voting members, mostly vaccine experts, doctors, nurses. One member represents consumers, currently a law professor and mother of a child who died from pertussis, which is a vaccine-preventable disease. So for decades, this group has made the recommendations for how to use every vaccine that the FDA approves. They say who should be given that vaccine and when. So, for example, I'm about to go take my 2 and 5-year-olds to the doctor to get checkups. The immunization schedule that their pediatrician follows comes from this group. And if you think about it, most vaccines are given in childhood. But now they have a quite different task. They're anticipating a vaccine that can help curb the coronavirus pandemic will become available at some point and that a framework will be needed to distribute that vaccine or vaccines, particularly the first limited doses.

KING: How limited will they be? Will there be 7 million, 7,000?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, as part of the effort to speed up the process from vaccine development to delivery, manufacturers are actually making vaccines now before they know whether they work or not. And that way if they work and they're safe, they can hit the ground running. And the federal government through Operation Warp Speed is pouring a huge amount of money into these companies to make that possible. But even with that head start, we're looking at enough doses to vaccinate somewhere between - you know, somewhere around 5% of the U.S. population.

KING: Who, then, will be first in line? Who gets the vaccine first?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So pretty much everyone agrees that front-line health workers should be first. But there are a lot of front-line health workers - doctors, nurses, hospital staff, nursing home staff. So there might need to be priority groups even within that category. And as more vaccine doses are manufactured, you know, the elderly, school staff, teachers, people in prisons and homeless shelters might be next. All of this is a reminder that for many of us, the wait for a vaccine will be long after approval on the order of 12 to 18 months. So ACIP clearly has a lot to weigh here in nailing out these details. Stanford pediatrician Grace Lee is a member of the committee, but she spoke to NPR on behalf of herself. She emphasized that the plans developed at this early stage need to be really flexible.

GRACE LEE: These recommendations are not in a vacuum. They are meant for the real world. And I think that's what makes it so complex.

KING: What does she mean? What are the real-world complexities?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, equity is a big concern since people of color are more likely to get COVID and more likely to get sick and die. And then there are technical considerations. If a particular vaccine that's first approved doesn't work well for older people, for instance, that could affect who gets it first. It might not make sense to put the elderly among the first priority groups. Some of the vaccines furthest along in development are also really challenging to handle and distribute. One might have a minimum of a thousand doses in a minimum order because it needs to be stored in ultra-low temperature. And in that case, shipping it to rural, sparsely populated areas might not make sense because there could be a lot of wasted vaccine. So these are all things that may come up as vaccine trials continue and we get a clearer picture of what the first approved COVID vaccine might actually be like.

KING: Really complicated stuff. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks so much, Selena.



KING: All right. A U.N. General Assembly unlike any other in history has begun.


VOLKAN BOZKIR: I now declare open the high level meeting to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.

INSKEEP: That is the Turkish diplomat who's overseeing the proceedings, which, because of the pandemic, really are global proceedings. World leaders are at home addressing the General Assembly virtually from around the globe. There's a lot of diplomacy to be done with tensions between the United States and China and the United States and Iran and the United States and the United Nations itself. That's the short list. Later this morning, President Trump and China's Xi Jinping will deliver their remarks. Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hassan Rouhani, among others, also speak today.

KING: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen will be following all of those speeches. And I guess you're not going to the U.N. either this year, Michele, huh?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Oh, I know, and it's so disappointing. I'm here in Washington, and, boy, do I miss it.

KING: Aw. OK. So how is the General Assembly marking 75 years?

KELEMEN: Well, they had an an event yesterday where a lot of the leaders gave kind of shorter addresses to talk about this moment, this need for multilateralism as the world faces a pandemic, an economic crisis and a climate crisis. President Trump as the leader of the host country was originally on the schedule, but instead, he had the acting deputy ambassador deliver remarks. And she said that this anniversary is a time to review the U.N.'s successes and its failures. Trump, as you know, is a critic of multilateral institutions and agreements. He has pulled out of the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and the World Health Organization, just to name a few.

KING: President Trump has recorded remarks that will be broadcast today. What is he expected to say?

KELEMEN: Well, he says that he's going to have something very strong to say about China. He's blamed China for the pandemic and has argued that the World Health Organization is too deferential to China. That's one of the reasons why the U.S. is leaving. But, you know, China has really spent a lot of effort over the years at the U.N. to build up its influence. President Xi, in fact, spoke to that event of the 75th anniversary yesterday. And I've heard a lot of diplomats and U.N. watchers warn that that's going to continue, especially as the U.S. pulls back. Another topic we're likely to hear about today, Noel, is Iran. The Trump administration says U.N. sanctions have snapped back on Iran. But the rest of the U.N. Security Council disagrees, saying the U.S. lost the right to snap back those sanctions when it left the nuclear deal. So I'm afraid we're going to hear a lot of people talking past each other today.

KING: Even though now arguably is a time when a body like the U.N. is so important because coronavirus has killed almost a million people. It's basically in every country on Earth. Do you think we'll get anything concrete in terms of cooperation, even if it's just on the virus?

KELEMEN: Well, I think we're going to hear a lot about the need to coordinate the international response, especially the distribution of an eventual vaccine. But one of the problems of this virtual format is that there's no chance for the kind of diplomatic speed dating that usually goes on, the meetings in the corridors and all of that. That's when things usually get done during the U.N. General Assembly week.

KING: Doesn't quite work the same way on Zoom. NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.